Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Defence

Atheists are arrogant.
This oft repeated dictum epitomizes the concept of atheism for most people. Why so? The simplest explanation is the most general one: people don’t like people who are different. If the rabble decently believes that a (benevolent/vengeful/indifferent) God exists, then why do those people have to go out of the way to be different? They are atheists (and deliberately different); ergo they are arrogant (to think they are better than the rest). I consign this argument to the same wastebasket of Nonsensical Generalizations that includes rubbish like ‘Long haired guys do drugs’ and ‘Austrian women like steamed cabbage’. These generalizations are simply a mechanism for people who are insecure about their incapacity to be different, to prop up their egos by crushing those who actually are different. Maybe we are all Communists at heart? Incidentally, the celebrated philosopher Ayn Rand is an atheist. In an interview where she espoused this view, the interviewer asked her if she ever wondered about the possibility that humans may not be smart enough to understand God. The unspoken corollary, of course, is that atheists are arrogant enough to preclude this possibility. This argument is incredibly self-defeating. In any scenario where God is beyond human comprehension, logically, atheism is the best world view you can get. If you cannot understand God, how can you embrace any theistic religion that purports to reveal the word of God? On the other hand, a theistic religion-free world view would do just fine too. I am still waiting for one though.

Atheists are hypocrites.
For me, any accusation about anyone’s hypocrisy regarding anything at all is meaningless. In a world of ones and zeroes, everyone is a hypocrite. Some people are merely less hypocritical than others. Cynics say that no atheist survives a life threatening situation: the atheist will inevitably go down on his knees praying for God to save his worthless life. Well it’s possible. I wonder how many devout God-fearing folk denounce an indifferent God when an offering of coconuts does not turn a profit. Non-hypocritical people aren’t the ones who are perfectly non-hypocritical: they are those who fight hypocrisy the hardest. Hypocrisy is an easy allegation to make against people who are trying to do some good. The people who make these allegations, the ones who rot inevitably in the anonymity of inaction, know that these barbs actually sting. Atheists can be hypocrites, but no more or less than any theist.

Atheists have no morals.
This argument is founded in the belief that religion is essential for morality. Many religions base their code of ethics on the judgment of a wrathful God. While this is motivation enough for someone to stick faithfully to the idea of morality advocated by such a religion, I think such superficial morality does more harm than good. Many things held moral by ancient religions are simply abhorrent today; the status of women in society and racism are examples. Similarly, some other things that religious texts consider immoral, like homosexuality and premarital sex are far less taboo today (as they should be). Religious texts have no code of ethics governing the environmental movement or animal welfare. These two ideals are close to my heart, and their absence is quite glaring. From this perspective, it seems that atheism offers one a chance to embrace a broader, more modern and less dogmatic code of ethics. Again, the whole argument would work just as well with a theistic religion-free philosophy. Benjamin Franklin was a practising Christian, but did not believe that morality and ethics are inextricably linked to religion. While some tenets of religious morality might be outdated, it cannot be denied that there still exist several that are and will continue to be relevant. Won’t atheists be deprived of these and turn to immorality? Fortunately today, an atheist is the embodiment of the rejection of dogma. It is unlikely that such a person will not evolve a personal code of ethics through constant introspection. The only lasting solution, however, is to bring ethics to the classroom. The study of ethics and morality as a science should make people open to the idea of constantly evolving notions of good and evil, and right and wrong.

First Cause

I think that if any war drags on for long enough, no side can claim victory. A ceasefire has just been declared in the mother of all wars – the question of the existence of God. I have vacillated more on this topic than a politician before the polls, so it’s a welcome break. So who wins... Theism or atheism? Neither, as it should be in any self-respecting tie. In an earlier post I argued that the necessity for a First Cause implies the existence of a Creator. First Cause is born out of inductively applying the question ‘why’ on the observed universe. Why do we have seasons on Earth? It’s because the Earth's tilted on its axis and presents itself at varying angles to sunlight as it revolves around the Sun. And why does it do that? It does so because the force of gravity compels it. And why does the force of gravity compel it to do that? Is it because the divine Creator has ordained it so? Unless you are hopelessly closed minded, you can see the problem with this explanation. Why does the divine Creator do what He/She/It does? If the answer is that the divine Creator has to obey different laws of a different universe, again the reason for the existence of those laws can be questioned. The theory of the First Cause has been proposed for only one reason – to put a halt to this infinite recursion. There must be some occurrence which happened just so– it did not have a reason to do that, or, with a nod to mysticism, the reason is beyond our comprehension. All other events ensued. With a simple sleight of nomenclature we can label the First Cause, God. There’s a problem with this theistic idea that did not strike me immediately. If the First Cause is being chosen arbitrarily (the First Cause could be the creator of God or the creator of the creator of God), then why don’t we stop before we even get started? We can say that the existence of the universe (and the associated laws of physics) is the First Cause. Again everything else ensues, but without God. Simply by removing one level from the recursion of whys, we have moved from theism to atheism.

I might have led you to believe that allusion to a First Cause is inevitable with the current understanding of our universe. That’s not entirely true. If the Big Bang occurred, and the universe began with it, then you need a First Cause. But what if the universe did not have a beginning? Many scientists, alarmed by the ‘creation event’ implied by the Big Bang, sought other explanations for the existence of the universe. A quantum theory of gravity could offer a potential escape clause: it can remove all singularities, meaning that the universe could have existed forever, making a ‘creation event’ a bit redundant. A question still remains. Even if the universe could be completely described in terms of a small set of physical laws, why does a universe that enforces these laws exist? Are the laws, as Stephen Hawking puts it, so compelling that they bring about the creation of the universe?